Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Pearl of Death (1944)

The Pearl of Death is one of the most admired of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movies, and rightly so. It was released in 1944, and produced and directed by Roy William Neill.

It was based, very very loosely indeed, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Six Napoleons.

The Pearl of Death begins with Sherlock Holmes giving an impressive demonstration of his genius as a detective. This is, alas, immediately followed by one of the biggest blunders of his career, one that threatens to tarnish his reputation in the eyes of the nation. The blunders is the direct result of Holmes’ overwhelming ego.

The subject of this embarrassing mistake is the famed Borgia Pearl, fabulously valuable but with a very evil reputation. Holmes is certain that criminal mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander) is behind the theft. Conover is certainly a worthy opponent for Holmes - he is clever and he is exceptionally ruthless.

The ruthlessness soon becomes evident with the first in what will be a series of horrifying murders. The victims have had their backs broken. Not surprisingly Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is totally at sea and is not even prepared to admit that the first murder really is a murder. Holmes however already has a shrewd idea how the murders were committed but the motives remain completely opaque. Nonetheless there are certain indications that lead the Great Detective to believe that the murders are linked to the theft of the notorious pearl.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are in sparkling form. Rathbone gets to sport a number of disguises. In fact disguise plays a particularly crucial role in this story with the villains making very effective use of the technique. This gives the studio’s resident make-up genius Jack Pierce plenty of useful employment.

The most notable of the trio of evildoers is Miles Mander as Conover. Conover might not be quite in the Professor Moriarty class but he’s still a fine villain, convincingly intellectual and also convincingly (but subtly) depraved, and oddly seedy as well. Rondo Hatton, who built a brief film career on personal misfortune (he was horribly disfigured by acromegaly), makes a brief but terrifying appearance as the dreaded Creeper. The third member of the criminal triumvirate  is, perhaps surprisingly, Universal’s popular scream queen Evelyn Ankers as the clever and dangerous Naomi Drake. Ankers handles the role reasonably well.

Dennis Hoey is even more blustering, and even more ineffectual, than usual as Inspector Lestrade.

As is usual in the case of the best movies in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes cycle there’s some low-key but effective spooky atmosphere especially when the Creeper puts in his appearance. Cinematographer Virgil Miler was quite adept at this sort of thing while by now director Roy William Neill knew exactly what the studio required of him and he knew how to deliver the goods.

The comic relief is kept to a minimum this time although Nigel Bruce still gets a few amusing moments and Basil Rathbone gets to mock poor Lestrade rather unmercifully.

The transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection DVD boxed set) is excellent and there are a few extras, including production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The Scarlet Claw is usually considered to be the best of all the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies with The Pearl of Death being the second best. From my memories of seeing The Scarlet Claw some years back (I really do need to watch it again) I’d tend to go along with that. The Pearl of Death certainly has no difficulty in living up to its glowing reputation. Highly recommended.


  1. Haven't seen this in about 25 years, but it's never been forgotten - especially the Creeper. Definitely one of the best.

    I didn't even know there was a Definitive Collection DVD set for the Rathbone movies. Went straight onto Amazon and ordered it (once I'd got past all the links to the Audiobook Definitive Collection)!

    1. I didn't even know there was a Definitive Collection DVD set for the Rathbone movies.

      They're movies well worth revisiting.They stand up remarkably well.